The Friday Afternoon Movie: North Korean Labor Camps

Switched to a YouTube playlist because the VICE video would auto-play. You can see the full-length version at the link at the end of the article.

Perhaps not the best thing for the week of Christmas, but history cares not about holidays. Last Saturday, as I’m sure you all know, Kim Jong Il, the iron handed dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, died from an apparent heart attack at the age of 69. The past week has seen a continuous outpouring of grief (some real, some staged) from within the Hermit Kingdom, while the rest of the world seems to look on with trepidation, waiting to see what his heir apparent, Kim Jung-un, will do.

Less than a week before Jong Il’s death, VICE News ran another of their fascinating looks into North Korea. Shane Smith, accompanied by freelance journalist Simon Ostrovosky, traveled to Siberia to investigate North Korean logging camps located deep in the forests. Here, North Korean citizens are contracted as laborers for up to 10 years, during which time they are housed, fed, and paid a pittance for their work. The North Korean government, meanwhile, was paid handsomely for what basically amounts to slave labor.

Smith’s interest seems to be twofold: to expose these camps, and to try to talk to North Korean citizens, a feat nearly impossible in his visits to the country itself. If you’ve seen Smith’s past work, then you’ll know what you’re in for. The reporting is solid, but there is a Gonzo aspect to it as well. A decent chunk of the forty minute documentary is spent on a crowded, sweltering train where the only thing to do to numb the boredom is drink. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be rather difficult to get near these camps, but he and his crew manage to at least talk for a bit with some of the laborers.

Regardless of your feelings on the style, VICE has done a stupendous job exposing yet another facet of the horror that was Kim Jong Il’s regime. In the closing minutes of the piece Shane reveals that much of the scrutiny they found themselves under was no doubt due to the fact that the Dear Leader was visiting the same area of Russia at the time to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and broker another labor deal, to sell more of his people. If that isn’t evil, I’m not sure what is.


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